Roush Dispatch: Monday's Spy Game: Chuck & Enemy
Zachary Levi, Chuck
Finally, NBC has made a smart move in its woebegone fall season: A week from Wednesday, NBC will restore the original (and, in last season's tweaking, again the best) Law & Order from its inexplicable hiatus to its rightful Wednesday spot at 10 pm/ET. Furthermore, NBC is rescuing the compelling crime drama Life from its death slot on Fridays (banishing the dying Lipstick Jungle there instead) and moving it to Wednesdays at 9 pm/ET, where Life might be seen as a sunnier, quirkier alternative to the grim slaughterhouse of CBS hit Criminal Minds.
Now that the Wednesday problem has been seen to — I'll pass making the requisite slap at the night's kick-off show Knight Rider, whose full-season renewal symbolizes NBC's current creative state — maybe NBC can now turn its attention to Mondays, where the overstuffed Heroes is fading, flanked by two outlandish spy spoofs, one of which is actually trying to be funny. That would be the wonderful Chuck, which NBC should waste no time in moving from the killer competition at 8 pm/ET to the post-Heroes slot at 10, currently being wasted on the ridiculously convoluted dud My Own Worst Enemy.
I've seen tonight's episodes of Chuck and Enemy, and there's no comparison when it comes to entertainment value — and even coherence, while keeping in mind that Chuck is a heightened comedy-adventure fantasy imagining a world where a charming nerd can help save the world on a weekly basis. This week Chuck (Zachary Levi) plays hero on a vintage 80s video game, programmed to help save the world from launching World War III, and somehow a classic Rush tune ("Tom Sawyer") figures into the equation (and episode title). It's silly, for sure, but also genuinely entertaining and actually exciting in its push-the-nuke-button climax. And the episode is, as usual, smartly and emotionally grounded in the tug-of-war over Chuck's limitless future. His loving sister frets that Chuck has slipped back into adolescent-slacker ways — all of this video-game nonsense doesn't help — but we know (as does his spy partner and kinda-fake girlfriend Sarah) that Chuck is truly an overachiever. "How does it feel to be a hero, Mr. Bartowski?" Sarah asks at the end of another hard day's unacknowledged work. It feels great, and that's how Chuck leaves you feeling. (Added bonus this week: Arrested Development's uber-geek Tony Hale, who's also appearing on Samantha Who?, arrives as Chuck's new efficiency-expert nemesis at the Buy More store.)
Watching Chuck, I find myself grinning. Watching My Own Worst Enemy, I can't contain my laughter. Which is not a good thing. This is the story of two men in one body, one a deadly spy and the other (the fake one) a mild-mannered family man, and what happens when the mechanism dividing these halves breaks down. In this labored Jekyll-Hyde scenario, the nice-guy Henry has come to hate the cold-blooded Edward (ostensibly the hero of this piece), who has only contempt for Henry's suburban-mouse existence. Henry spends much of every episode berating his alter ego over the cell phone or trying to punish him, in one ludicrous moment injuring himself in hopes of hurting Henry. (The mocking response, delivered again through cell phone: "A broken pinky! What are you, a Cub Scout?") So in this show's spy-vs.-guy set-up, which might actually make a decent comedy sketch if not a series, Edward wakes up in time to take Henry's daughter dress-shopping (with disastrous results) while Henry wakes up in time to jump from a plane on Edward's latest mission, and again tries to punish Edward by giving away a prized possession to a contact. I suppose we're meant to think that eventually Edward will learn some valuable lessons from Henry's humanity, and Henry will benefit by toughening up while walking in Edward's shoes. But it's impossible to swallow any of this dramatically or otherwise, while we endlessly ponder why the folks back at Janus HQ (including the wildly overqualified Alfre Woodard) would allow this preposterous and dangerous charade to continue. Christian Slater is doing his best to keep both halves of this wacky show humming, but all this effort amounts to is a very unpleasant demonstration of flop sweat.
By hiding Chuck at the expense of this laughable loser, NBC is again proving to be its own worst enemy.